Featured image: baby with asthma receives treatment through an inhaler. Credit: Thinkstock
A study of the effects of smoking electronic cigarettes during pregnancy has been hailed by the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) in its stand against legalising nicotine in e-cigarettes.
Using a mouse model and human lung cells, the UTS Molecular Biosciences Research Team study, led by Pawan Sharma, David Chapman and Brian Oliver, found e-cigarette vaping among expectant mothers increased the risk and severity of allergic asthma in their babies.
“E-cigarettes are being regarded as a tool to help quit smoking, so we considered the effect of maternal e-cigarette vaping an important area to look in to,” says Sharma.
“Our study indicated e-vaping in pregnancy was associated with reduced lung function and an increased risk of asthma in the mothers’ offspring. These findings show that e-cigarette use during pregnancy should not be considered safe.”
The UTS team’s e-cigarette research is supported by an international study in which laboratory trials concluded that when e-cigarettes are used as a healthier substitute for tobacco smoking during pregnancy, mothers may still be posing significant neurological risks to their unborn offspring.
Earlier this year, Australia’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) rejected an application to relax the ban on e-cigarettes containing nicotine.
Professor Peter Gibson, TSANZ President, says the evidence does not support the lifting of the ban.
“While electronic cigarettes are likely to be less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, they are not harmless,” he says
“We have an increasing body of evidence pointing to the harms of e-cigarettes containing nicotine.”
Australia’s ban on e-cigarettes containing nicotine was introduced in 2009. In September 2016, an application to the TGA proposed nicotine in e-cigarettes at certain concentrations should be exempt on the basis that they provide an alternative pathway for smokers who are unable or unwilling to quit. The TGA decided in March to continue the ban.
Chapman says e-cigarettes still expose users to numerous toxic compounds.
“It is unknown whether a reduction in these compounds equates to improved health outcomes. Nicotine is a highly addictive compound and itself leads to detrimental health outcomes.”
This article on e-cigarette research was first published by UTS on 13 April 2017. Read the original article here.
Graphene is a carbon material that is one atom thick.
Its thin composition and high conductivity means it is used in applications ranging from miniaturised electronics to biomedical devices.
These properties also enable thinner wire connections; providing extensive benefits for computers, solar panels, batteries, sensors and other devices.
Until now, the high cost of graphene production has been the major roadblock in its commercialisation.
Previously, graphene was grown in a highly-controlled environment with explosive compressed gases, requiring long hours of operation at high temperatures and extensive vacuum processing.
CSIRO scientists have developed a novel “GraphAir” technology which eliminates the need for such a highly-controlled environment.
The technology grows graphene film in ambient air with a natural precursor, making its production faster and simpler.
“This ambient-air process for graphene fabrication is fast, simple, safe, potentially scalable, and integration-friendly,” says CSIRO scientist Dr Zhao Jun Han, co-author of the paper published in Nature Communications.
“Our unique technology is expected to reduce the cost of graphene production and improve the uptake in new applications.”
GraphAir transforms soybean oil – a renewable, natural material – into graphene films in a single step.
“Our GraphAir technology results in good and transformable graphene properties, comparable to graphene made by conventional methods,” says CSIRO scientist and co-author of the study Dr Dong Han Seo.
With heat, soybean oil breaks down into a range of carbon building units that are essential for the synthesis of graphene.
The team also transformed other types of renewable and even waste oil, such as those leftover from barbecues or cooking, into graphene films.
“We can now recycle waste oils that would have otherwise been discarded and transform them into something useful,” Seo says.
The potential applications of graphene include water filtration and purification, renewable energy, sensors, personalised healthcare and medicine, to name a few.
Graphene has excellent electronic, mechanical, thermal and optical properties as well.
Its uses range from improving battery performance in energy devices, to cheaper solar panels.
CSIRO are looking to partner with industry to find new uses for graphene.
Researchers from The University of Sydney, University of Technology Sydney and The Queensland University of Technology also contributed to this work.
This article was first published by CSIRO on 31 Jan 2017. Read the original article here.
The employment prospects of science graduates are called into question by a report published by the Grattan Institute.
Studying science will get you a job – just not the job you might expect.
Industry and high placed academics have decried the results of a report declaring science to be a ‘high risk’ degree.
Such results fail to represent career prospects for those working outside of traditional science roles, say a cohort of Australia’s leading science experts.
Last week the respected Grattan Institute think tank’s Mapping Higher Education report warned that science was a ‘high risk’ study choice and that many recent science and information technology graduates are failing to find full-time work.
It’s not wrong, but it is near-sighted, say university and industry experts.
The report, released last week, concludes that a bachelor science degree is “high risk for finding a job” with “poor employment outcomes”, warning 51% of science graduates looking for full-time work in 2015 had found it four months after completing their course, 17 percentage points lower than the national average.
But thinking of science as a one-track path to the lab fails to take into account the broader benefits of a science degree, says Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Greg Hunt.
Professor Les Field, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UNSW Australia and Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, says STEM-based education gives students a “versatile, flexible, problem-solving, technology-literate grounding, which is what you need for life and employment in the modern world”.
Science graduates have higher rates of employment
The Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM workforce, shows that over the medium term, people with STEM qualifications have higher rates of employment than graduates from other disciplines, Field points out.
“A survey of 466 employers across various sectors [STEM Skills in the workforce: What do employers want? March, 2015] have also shown that many employers expect to employ many more STEM graduates over the next five to 10 years, and around a quarter are already struggling to recruit people with appropriate STEM qualifications,” says Field.
“There is some mismatch between employer requirements of STEM graduates and the skills and experience with which they are coming out of universities. We should advocate that more industry placements and internships form a stronger part of university education.”
“Not a lot of opportunities”
Zara Barger, a first-year biomedical engineering student at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) admits that she is “a little worried” about her prospects. “In Australia it seems as though there is not a lot of opportunities. As part of my degree I have to do two 6-month internships and I think that will give me insight and connections.”
Alecia Newton, a UTS Bachelor of Science student, agrees. “I’m a little bit concerned. I’m planning on getting some experience by volunteering so fingers crossed that will get me a job. But science is a good starting ground – it will give me good knowledge and if it doesn’t work out I will do a Masters in high school teaching,” she says.
Grattan report “surprising”
“It’s surprising to see the Grattan Institute’s claims that are contrary to other reports both here and overseas,” says Jackie Randles, state manager for Inspiring Australia, the Federal Government’s national strategy for engaging communities in STEM.
“The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. By 2020, more than a third of the core skill sets of most occupations will be those that are not yet considered crucial today and likely to involve STEM,” says Randles.
“Closer to home, Australia’s STEM skills shortage continues to be a major risk to our economy with business joining government and academics in calls to redress a worrying skills gap.”
Graham Durant, Director of Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, says graduates with a “good science degree and a balanced portfolio of skills, knowledge and abilities will continue to have good employment prospects but not necessarily as academic researchers.
“The STEM disciplines, including art and design provide very good training for the world of work but degrees should not be regarded as vocational training. A good background in STEM disciplines opens up many opportunities in careers that may not necessarily be regarded as STEM careers.”
Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education at UNSW and former Dean of Science agrees that the longer term prospects for science graduates are excellent.
“With slightly more people studying science, obviously slightly fewer people will get jobs at once. Science still provides opportunities – all doors remain open to science graduates.”
Featured image above: biophotonics Professor Dayong Jin. Credit Vanessa Valenzuela Davie
Professor Dayong Jin envisions a future where portable diagnostic devices will be as ubiquitous as smartphones, where scientists can peer inside individual cells, and where diseases can be detected before they infect our bodies.
A pioneer in the emerging field of nanoscale biophotonics at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), it’s a future Jin is working hard to create.
“The nanoscale is really the fundamental level on which biological molecules operate,” he says. “It’s the scale of the original disease.”
Jin engineers functional nanoparticles – invisible to the naked eye – which harness light to probe our cells, detect diseases and deliver drugs in perfectly measured doses.
Transforming the biomedical industry with biophotonics
Jin was recently named the Director of a new A$3.7 million Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Hub. The hub’s objective is to develop portable diagnostic devices with vastly improved detection capabilities.
These easy-to-use devices, which incorporate nanomaterials and photonic technologies developed by Jin and his colleagues from UTS and the University of South Australia, can analyse incredibly small samples of substances including breath, saliva, urine and blood, to find markers of disease.
Jin says these point-of-care technologies will ease the burden on hospitals and align with the demands of consumers: real-time health monitoring, and faster treatment options.
“In the near future, prostate cancer patients who have gone into remission will have a handheld device at home to analyse their urine samples,” he says. “It will be able to tell them whether their cancer is recurring.”
The hub is also working with industry partners to develop an improved roadside breath-testing device for police forces to detect traces of illicit drugs.
Over its five-year lifespan, Jin expects the hub to generate a number of new portable diagnostic devices, which can be tailored to specific applications to detect everything from cancers to infectious diseases and environmental pollutants.
Super Dots diagnose diseases inside the body
Jin is also helping improve disease diagnosis from inside the body itself.
Cancers and infectious disease outbreaks all originate from a single cell, he says.
“The current challenge is that we don’t have a method to find this very rare cell from the earliest stage.”
Jin was part of an Australian research team that developed a technology known as Super Dots, which won a prestigious Eureka Prize in 2015. These nanoparticles can find a needle in a haystack, detecting individual diseased cells from a population of millions.
The particles are made from a nanocrystal material that can absorb invisible infrared light and emit higher energy, visible light, says Jin.
Once the nanoparticle has found the target cell inside the body, or a blood sample, it can be stimulated by researchers with a harmless, skin-penetrating infrared light.
The dot then emits a visible flash, which causes the diseased cell to light up.
“It’s like you have the diseased cell glowing in the darkness,” says Jin. “This allows you to achieve the ultimate detection sensitivity.”
Beyond medicine, Super Dots can be encoded with “secret signatures” and used for the anti-counterfeiting of passports, banknotes and drug labels, says Jin.
There are also applications for more efficient solar cells and 3D display screens.
Biophotonics pioneer featured video above: Superdots, WINNER 2015 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.Credit: Australian Museum.
Breaching the blood-brain barrier
Jin is hopeful that another class of his nanoparticles will serve as a versatile drug delivery vehicle, capable of breaching the protective blood-brain barrier.
Delivering drugs to individual neurons in the brain is a “holy grail problem” in neurological research, says Jin.
“There are many drugs already developed to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s quite effectively outside the body,” he says. “But the blood-brain barrier prevents more than 99 per cent of drugs from accessing the brain from the blood circulation system.”
Jin and his colleagues have created a library of 800 types of nanoscale drug carriers with specific shapes, sizes and surface functionality. Importantly, they have developed a process to replicate these carriers exactly, according to any design.
“We’ve solved the problem in terms of developing the material,” he says.
“If the tailored drug carrier can tell the blood-brain barrier that the carriers are the friend and not the enemy… we can open a gate into the brain.”
Super-resolution microscopy breakthrough
Jin’s research has led to a recent breakthrough in the field of microscopy.
With colleagues at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US and Peking University in China, Jin has developed a simple but highly effective way to see individual cells in 3D – overcoming a major barrier. Instead of growing cells on transparent glass slides, the team grew their cells on specialised mirrors. As reflected light passed through the cell while being viewed under a super-resolution microscope, researchers could see new structures in exquisite detail.
“This simple technology is allowing us to see the details of cells that have never been seen before,” says Jin. “We can see the tiny little hole on the cell nucleus’ membrane – that hole is the entrance and exit for single molecules.
“When the cell wants to express a signal, or send a message outside the cell, this is the gateway – and we now have the tool to see what that looks like.”
By understanding how cells behave, communicate and how diseases arise inside them, researchers can develop more effective treatments.
Jin and Professor Peng Xi from Peking University hold a patent for their invention, and Jin says they are currently exploring opportunities to commercialise the technology with leading imaging companies such as Olympus and German firm Leica.
Multiculturalism trumps geography for Australia
It was love that brought Jin to Australia from his home in northeastern China, near the border with inner Mongolia. His future wife, Lisa Li, came to Sydney to study accounting in 2002, and he followed.
Jin ended up at Macquarie University in the laboratory of Dr Jim Piper, a renowned expert in lasers, optics and photonics. Under his guidance, Jin developed a system to detect trace amounts of pathogens in water.
Jin says the postgraduate scholarship in Australia was more comprehensive and generous than what was offered to his Chinese peers who chose to study in the US.
Jin says he and his family had planned on returning to China or finding a postdoctoral position in the US after his PhD, but ultimately decided to stay in Australia.
He says the decision has been good for his career: “Geographically, Australia looks like it’s isolated,” he says. “But we are actually well connected.
“The Australian research community is very multicultural, and these ‘soft connections’ have created a lot of opportunities for my research collaborations.”
Jin says multidisciplinary knowledge and collaboration is vital to realising the healthcare future he envisions – and going even further beyond.
In addition to his many breakthroughs in biophotonics, one of the prospects Jin is most excited about is that of truly personalised medicines.
At present, people with the same diseases are all treated with the same drugs, which might be totally ineffective for a proportion of the population, says Jin.
“But future medicines will have a tool to decode the unique molecular signature of a patient,” he says.
It means when two people have the same disease, they could be treated remarkably differently – with dramatically improved outcomes.
This is where we’re heading, he says.
– Myles Gough
This article on the biophotonics pioneer, Professor Dayong Jin, was first published by Australia Unlimited on 9 August 2016. Read the original article here.
Gone are the days when students enrol in university with the ultimate aim of being employed by a large company. Today, students are looking for more than just a degree and a set career path to follow. “Forty per cent of our students say that they don’t want jobs,” says Attila Brungs, Vice Chancellor of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). “They want to create their own career path as entrepreneurs.”
To help kick-start these ambitions, UTS has launched the Hatchery and Hatchery+ pre-incubator and incubator programs. Far from typical classroom learning, the Hatchery programs are open to students from all faculties and offer a cross-disciplinary, hands-on environment to develop startup skills. In addition to classes, workshops and networking events, students are given access to their own co-working space and the support of industry mentors.
The timing could not be better. It is estimated that tech startups could contribute $100 billion to Australia’s gross domestic product by 2030. But according to the recent report Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia commissioned by Australia’s former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Australian innovation continues to lag behind countries like South Korea and the United Kingdom. Despite producing around 43,000 STEM publications annually, tech startups currently make up just 0.06% of all Australian businesses.
The report pointed out that universities hold the key to creating fast-growing and globally competitive new businesses. There was an emphasis on making entrepreneurship more accessible to innovation-driven students by fostering industry partnerships, encouraging a stronger startup culture and developing more incubator programs – similar to the Hatchery.
The six-week Hatchery pre-incubator program is aimed at students considering an entrepreneurial career and focuses on the development of innovative business ideas. The program uses a range of practical approaches, such as teaching students how to design prototypes with limited materials and how to pitch ideas to investors. The Hatchery also gives participants the opportunity to connect with industry powerhouses like Microsoft, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Innovation Lab and ABC Innovation.
“Learning alongside people from such diverse backgrounds is helping me turn my ideas into a business,” she says. “I definitely feel more prepared to collaborate with people from different fields than I did when I graduated with my Arts degree in 2012.”
For standout business ideas, UTS recently launched Hatchery+, a three-month incubator program that supports the growth of early-stage startups founded by UTS students or alumni. Hatchery+ offers its startups free access to their own co-working space, clinics on business topics ranging from IP law to web development, and continual support from mentors. The program also includes some funding towards business development and an introduction to potential investors.
One of the seven startups participating in Hatchery+ is Psykinetic, a social enterprise that produces life-improving technologies for people with severe disabilities like cerebral palsy. Founded by biomedical engineer and futurist presenter Dr Jordan Nguyen, Psykinetic’s products include a thought-controlled wheelchair and eye-tracking software to enable people with disabilities to use keyboards.
After just a few weeks of being involved with Hatchery+, Jordan says that Psykinetic is ready for further investment. He says that the program has enabled him to focus on certain aspects of his startup that had been neglected like accounting and administration. “It’s been a great opportunity to tie up loose ends that we hadn’t yet thought of,” he says. “It’s so exciting to get a clearer idea of how to give your business the best possible start instead of cutting corners down the line without even realising.”
Hatchery+ offers participants the dedicated support of industry mentors like Vicki Lay, a former student founder of the successful online textbook resource Zookal. For UTS MBA student Leah Callon-Butler, the opportunity to discuss ideas with experienced entrepreneurs has been invaluable for the development of her startup NeoWip, a digital hub that aims to help Australian businesses expand across the globe in a fast and cost-effective way.
“Being able to bounce ideas off industry experts who have been-there-done-that allows me to leverage a wealth of validated learning that already exists in the Australian startup community,” she says. “The mentor relationships have really accelerated the growth and development of my company.”
While Australia has been slow to support a startup culture, the Hatchery and Hatchery+ join a growing number of startup facilities provided by Australian universities, such as Western Sydney University’s Launch Pad and the University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate hub. “I’m excited by the impact that these programs are going to have,” says Brungs. “Cross-disciplinary collaboration is key to innovation and advancement.”